It can't really have been five years since we didn't care about Ghost Rider, can it? Aye, and the sequel that nobody wanted has taken every bit of that long to come out and promptly be ignored by virtually the whole world: and yet here I am, reviewing Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance anyway, because I hate myself almost as much as I hate you, my readers.

I mean, seriously, at what point in development hell does Marvel decide that too much time has gone by to bother? Six years? Seven? Are we still in the danger zone for a follow-up to Punisher: War Zone? Or, Christ help us, another Daredevil? I ask only because right now all the rules seem to have been cast aside with giddy abandon. God, I hope a third Swamp Thing is waiting somewhere in all of this. That would be just aces.

Anyway, none of that is germane to the fact that, in sullen, resentful spite of all good sense and basic decency, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has been produced and released, and we are here to consider it. Such a consideration is not terrifically probing: the film is a bit lousy, though not as lousy as the first Ghost Rider: Nicholas Cage is more deranged in the role this time around, and thus more entertaining, and the visual effects are a damn sight better, and the directorial team of Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor have a considerably more kinetic and suggestively disorienting visual style than Mark Steven Johnson's plodding treatment of the original, though it such a far cry from the brazenness of Neveldine/Taylor's Crank pictures that you can no longer see them through the foggy haze of the distance. All of which adds up to a movie that is in every way an improvement upon its predecessor, though as humongously stupid as its predecessor was, that says very, very little.

Sometime after the events of the first movie, which found former stunt biker Johnny Blaze (Cage) turned into the devil's bounty hunter, a leather-clad skeleton gushing hellfire out of every surface, he has fled to Europe, where he has become awfully good at keeping his unwelcome alter ego from sneaking out to destroy the souls of the wicked and innocent alike. As we join him, nestled away in a forgotten corner, he is approached by one Moreau (Idris Elba), who claims to be a representative of an ancient religious order, led by a man of great spiritual fortitude with the ability to dispel Blaze's curse. All that Blaze must do is find a single boy, Danny (Fergus Riordan), before he is taken by Roarke (Ciรกran Hinds), the current bodily incarnation of Satan. Along the way, Blaze - now letting the demonic Ghost Rider out to hunt - crosses paths with Danny's gypsy mother Nadya (Violante Placido), who joins him to protect her son; he also crosses paths with Nadya's ex-boyfriend, Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), a scummy type of bastard who ends up recruited by Roarke and given the ability to decay any object just by holding it.

The conflict, from here, goes to the exactly most obvious place: Danny is the centerpiece of a ritual that will give the devil nearly unimaginable powers, etc. and so forth. You can't swing a dead cat in a room full of '70s horror films with whacking into basically that exact same story. Weirdly, Neveldine/Taylor and the three credited screenwriters - Scott M. Gimple & Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer, whose involvement with the Christopher Nolan Batman films seems more like an accident with every other project to which he attaches himself - don't seem to realise how ridiculously straightforward this plot is, because they spent a remarkable amount of time explaining it, considering its ramifications, re-explaining it, and explaining it again in a nifty montage of comic-ish drawings. Whatever its other, frequently criminal missteps, Ghost Rider at least had the decency to keep the action flowing; Spirit of Vengeance is damn obsessed with talking and explaining and back-storying - the subtitle refers to the Ghost Rider's secret history, which barely features into the plot at all, and is brought up largely to set up another sequel, which seems monumentally unlikely, though who the hell can say at this point - and has barely any action at all, outside of a handful of setpieces tarted up with too much CGI in pursuit of some elusive idea of cool (one, involving a giant construction vehicle of some sort, has all the narrative logic of a caffeinated child playing with mismatched action figures).

The film was shot in Romania, and feels like it; all of the plot contortions leading to the sensation that the locations the producers were able to acquire drove the story rather than the other way around, and the shininess of the cinematography and production design have a kind of cheap, tacky sheen that recalls a direct-to-video project, or Cage's own adventures in Season of the Witch, rather than a movie that is attempting, even in a small way, to funnel real money to a major American film company. Even the presence of moderately famous and not tremendously expensive people like Hinds and Elba add to the sensation of a cheap knock off of something better, though in this case it's hard to say what Spirit of Vengeance is even trying to knock off: not the five-year-old original, one hopes, nor the dusty subgenre of satanists trying to bring about the birth of the antichrist. It is, in every possible way, a film that should not exist.

That leaves us but with one consideration: Cage. Of late, as we can most of us agree, the only real value that the actor has left is his ability to go completely nuts in compelling ways. At it is best, as in Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, the results can still qualify as good or even great acting; mostly, though, the best we can hope for is just a carnivalesque display of gaudiness that is more fun than not. In Spirit of Vengeance, we get a not-quite-balls-out Cage, though it's far more than he gave us in the first movie; indeed, Cage's characterisation here is not, in any particulars, the same as he gave for the putatively same role in the last movie. There is one particularly choice scene in which Blaze attempts to keep the Rider tamped down while questioning a low-level bad guy, and Cage stutters and strains like he's having an orgasm while horribly constipated. But otherwise, this is not a significantly garish enough Cage performance to elevate a not significantly garish enough comic book adaptation that has absolutely no merits beyond demonstrating that post-process 3-D is still the worst thing you will ever encounter in a movie theater.

3/10